Brussels is official capital of Belgium and can trace its lineage all the way back to a fort built in the year 989 by Charles of France, duke of Basse-Lotharingie. Once the fort was erected the city began to evolve next to it. It was perfect, next to the river Zenne, the waterway gave travel and trade access to it citizens.
Today Brussels is a vibrant cosmopolitan European city and any traveler is sure to find something they enjoy. It is with this in mind we would like to tell you of our favorite things to do when visiting Brussels.
1. Eat some chocolate at the Jean Neuhaus store
This delectable treat, made from South American cocoa beans, go back into Belgian history all the way to the seventeenth century. It was at this time that Belgium was governed by Spain and their explorers introduced this treat to the Belgians without knowing the trend they were starting.
Today Belgian chocolates are internationally known and that has a great deal to do with Jean Neuhaus, a Swiss business owner, who owned a pharmacy and sweets store in Brussels. His shop was located in the Galérie de la Reine and Neuhaus opened it in 1857. When operating there Neuhaus would sell slabs of dark chocolate that would eventually evolve into the famous Belgian treats of the day.
Chocolates made and sold in Belgium today have to abide by strict standards and laws that go into accordance with the industry. Not everyone can make chocolate in Belgium and call it Belgian chocolate. One law indicates that chocolate must have thirty-five percent cocoa as an ingredient. This law was put into place in 1884 and was done so to weed out those who might try to use substitutes.
It is said that most creators of chocolates in Belgium refuse to use vegetable shortening in their creations to maintain the authentic standards, although that would probably be the less expensive option.
The store in which this rich tradition began still operates in Brussels and is a must visit for anyone headed that way.
2. See an opera or ballet at the La Monnaie
Also known as the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in French or as the Koninklijke Muntschouwburg, or de Munt in Dutch, this theater goes all the way back before Napoleon Bonaparte. It was in 1695 when successful banker and theatre owner Gio Paolo Bombarda insisted that the city needed a wonderful theatre for opera, ballet and other performing arts. He felt this theater should be open to the public and it was built by the turn of the century.
This theater was rebuilt by orders from Napoleon a century later and in 1819 a new building was inaugurated. Twenty-one years later this new theater would play an imperative role when Belgium fought for freedom and liberation by showing The Mute of Portici, an Auber opera that was once prohibited.
In 1853 La Monnaie was restricted to only opera and ballet performances and only two years after that the building burned severely. There were only a few remnants of the old theater left standing. The Belgians moved quickly and a new building was inaugurated the next year.
More than a century after the La Monnaie decided to focus primarily on opera and ballet the theater was dubbed a national institution. In 1998 they celebrated the three hundredth anniversary. Many greats have danced and sang at La Monnaie including Sergei Prokofiev’s premiere of Igrok in 1929.
Watch Dvořák’s opera masterpiece Rusalka on La Monnaie over here!
3. Drink some beer
Different regions of the world have their specialties. Just as Scotland is known for its whiskey and champagne is distinctive to France, beer is a drink that goes side by side with Belgium further than Belgium does as a country itself. During the first crusades different abbeys in the region now known as Belgium would make beer to raise money.
The beer that they were selling back then was not the beer we drink today. This ancestor to today’s Belgian beer had less alcohol and was actually consumed more than water simple because it was cleaner. While these abbeys created new brews innovations came about and beer began to evolve.
Some of the best beers in Belgium are made in Trappist monasteries, a tradition that goes back to the 1800s. At the time the Trappist monasteries became refuges for monks looking to escape the French Revolution. By 1836 the first official Belgian Trappist brewery opened. The first sale that is on the books for a Trappist beer doesn’t appear until 1861.
Of course, then there are Abbey beers, who do not have as strict of brewing rules as the Trappist breweries. These beers didn’t appear on the commercial market until after WWI.
While visiting Brussels you can take a tour of a brewery like the Brasserie Cantillon, which is dated back more than a century and offers all kinds of fun stuff to do like tour their museum or take a public brewing course. Or you can visit another museum dedicated to brewing, the Museum of Belgian Brewers. If neither of these interest, you than simply find a bar and have a beer. The top rated beers in Belgium today are the Trappist Westvleteren 12, Cantillon Fou’ Foune and the Cantillon Blåbær Lambik, the latter two brewed at the Brasserie Cantillon we mentioned earlier.
4. Go see the Manneken Pis
No city is without its distinctive sculptures and structures. Chicago has Buckingham fountain, while the Blarney Castle outside of Cork, Ireland boasts the most kissed structure, the Blarney Stone, Brussels is not without its own unique feature.
This would be a statue of a boy peeing. While this may seem a bit unorthodox it seems that the adoration the locals feel for this little urinating fountain goes to great depths. There is no definite story on why the fountain was erected and they range from a tourist who gifted the city with the fountain when his lost son was found when visiting to a legend of a boy who diffused a bomb while Brussels was under attack. How did he stop the bomb? He urinated on it.
Not only is the Manneken Pis a place where tourists conjugate, he is a valued member of the community. This is shown by the many costumes he is adorned in throughout the year. At Christmas he is dressed as Santa, recently he was given a “red leather Chinese costume” from the city of Haining, China. At certain festivals the boy pees beer for all to drink. This peeing boy definitely knows how to have a good time.
5. Go see the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Named for the patron saints of the city, this cathedral, which was official given that status in 1962, dates back as far as the eighth century. At first it was dedicated to St. Michael but in 1047 it was also devoted to the martyr St. Gudula. Two centuries later Henry I, the Duke of Brabant ordered that the cathedral be restored and a pair of round towers were added to the skyline.
Still it wasn’t until Henri II also decided to restore the church that its gothic structure came to be. This restoration was not complete until 1519 taking almost three hundred years.
When looking at the building from the outside you will see that is made of stone and the windows have a French influence but still maintain the Gothic style. The tower to the south of the cathedral encase forty-nine bells as a part of a carillon, which is a device used in bell towers. Rumor has it they can be heard giving concerts on Sundays.
6. Visit the Belgian Comic Strip Center
If you are a lover of many art forms, like we are, one day we may see an opera, the next a ballet, but in between we are flipping through a Batman comic or the latest issue of The Walking Dead, then this unique attraction is perfect for you. The Belgian Comic Strip Center is devoted to informing and entertaining anyone who has a love for the “Art Nouveau.”
Opening its doors in 1906 this museum was the vision of Victor Horta and has since become one of the top tourist destinations in Brussels. It is located near the Grand’Place and the Royal District and has permanent and temporary demonstrations annually.
It is not surprising that Brussels would be home to such a place since Belgium has the most comic strip creators per capita than anywhere else in the world. It is here where you will experience both the Ninth Art, which is a style of comic that is exclusive to Belgian and French readers, and Art Nouveau, an art movement that is distinctive to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
7. Go see the flower carpet
Of course, there is only a limited amount of time to take in this breathtaking scent. Put together at the Grand-Place, which is a central square of Brussels, this unique event happens every other year in the summer. They typically showcase it on August 15th and it is quite the undertaking.
Illustrators, designers, landscapers and even musicians who compose music to go along with the event get together to construct a blanket of begonias in the middle of the city’s central square. It is constructed in “less than four hours” by one-hundred “volunteer gardeners.” Their website likens the process to a big flower “puzzle.”
The first official Flower Carpet of Brussel was implemented in 1971 and has become a greatly attended event every other year since that time.